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December 13, 2001
Can Putin profit from no ABM?
Russian leader could turn loss into gain on world stage
By Dana Lewis

MOSCOW—For months Russia has voiced its strong opposition to a U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. When President Bush formally announced the pullout on Thursday, a top aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin described the decision as “no surprise. But it is a great disappointment.”

“WE KNEW IT was coming,” the Kremlin source said on condition of anonymity.

The inevitability of Washington pulling out of a 30-year-old bedrock of U.S.-Russian relations was noted by President Putin in a special address on Russian television Thursday night.

“The U.S. leadership spoke of this several times, and this step was not a surprise for us. However, we consider it a mistake,” he said.

Russia has steadfastly maintained the ABM is a cornerstone to nuclear deterrence. The formula is basic. The Russians say there’s no point signing accords on controlling offensive weapons without a treaty controlling defensive measures, too. The ABM was a key ingredient in the “mutually assured destruction” recipe that guided the United States and Soviet Union through five decades of frosty ties.

In Cold War terms, if either side launched a nuclear missile the other side would respond in kind — and both countries would risk being wiped out in a nuclear exchange. By scrapping the ABM, Russia feels vulnerable because there won’t be nuclear balance.

“For the Russians, there’s a link between offensive and defensive systems, and they think that link has been destroyed, or is likely to be destroyed,” said Robert Nurick of Moscow’s Carnegie Institute. Nurick, who helped negotiate nuclear arms treaties in the 1970s under the Carter administration, said the Kremlin is “at a bit of a loss as to what to do next, and the big issue is whether there will be any binding obligations they can count on.”


Putin has been clear in previous statements — although his budding friendship with Bush has toned down his rhetoric of late — that if Washington scraps the ABM treaty, all arms agreements between the two countries could be thrown out the window.

And there have been growing signs of discontent in Russian defense circles.

Russian defense ministry officials and analysts have warned that Russia could back out of the START-1 treaty, which has rigid and complicated inspection regimes for American and Russian teams to monitor the decommissioning of nuclear arms.

Russian military officials have said in private that Russia’s response to a U.S. missile defense shield could include placing multiple warheads on its latest generation nuclear missile — the TOPOL — or halting the decommissioning of older generation SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles, of which there are currently about 180 with up to 10 warheads each.


The Bush administration’s timing — which the White House links to the dramatic change in national security priorities since Sept. 11 — is being questioned in Moscow.

“The U.S. used our enormous help to conduct the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan,” noted Vladimir Lukin, Russia’s former ambassador to Washington and member of Russia’s lower house of parliament. “Then the U.S. announces its position on ABM. It’s a sign, and a bad sign at that,” he said.

Other Russian politicians vented their fury. Vyacheslav Volodin, leader of the pro-government Fatherland-All Russia faction in parliament called the United States “a superpower that is trying to dictate its rules to the world.”

Many Russians believe Washington could have — and should have — negotiated a compromise on the ABM to allow testing of a missile defense system, instead of giving notice to ditch the ABM agreement.


But most criticism has been drowned out by cheerful appearances by Bush and Putin, whose back-slapping informal get-togethers since Bush’s inauguration culminated in a summit at the U.S. president’s Texas ranch last month.

If the U.S. was determined to do away with what it calls a Cold War-era treaty, there may have been no better time to strike the match.

In his TV address Thursday, Putin sought to minimize the impact Bush’s decision will have on Russia — and suggest that Russia still has enough nuclear punch to overwhelm a future American missile shield.

“As is well known, Russia and the U.S., unlike other nuclear powers, have for a long time possessed effective means to overcome missile defenses,” Putin said. “Therefore I fully believe that the decision taken by the President of the United States does not pose a threat to the national security of the Russian Federation.”

Analyst Nurick said that Putin, by acknowledging the inevitability of the end of the ABM accord, is already planning for the post-ABM era.

“More broadly what I think Putin and the people around him are looking for is a reply to what they view as their overture for integration with the West,” Nurick said. “This is the way he’s described his program at home, the currency he’s used.”

In the end, Russia may be forced to swallow America’s resolve to pull out of the ABM treaty, but the Kremlin will be looking for something to sweeten the bitter pill. Post-Soviet Russia has for years been seeking to reclaim the role of superpower — and take a seat at the important tables of Western security, economic and political decision making.

After months of failed negotiations, Bush’s withdrawal from ABM is finally out in the open. If the result really was no surprise for the Russian president, prepare for Putin to call in his bets.

NBC’s Dana Lewis is based in Moscow.

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